Sunday, March 17, 2013

Angry Arab interviews Aron Lund on Syrian opposition groups

I don't agree with Aron Lund (a Swedish journalist specializing in Middle East issues) on Syria: we approach the situation differently and we derive different conclusions.  But I respect Aron's knowledge: I regard him as the most knowledgeable observer and analyst of the Syrian opposition there is.  So I sent him yesterday a series of questions asking for his answers to publish on this blog for the infrequent interview section of the blog.  Here are my questions and his answers:  I post without, of course, agreeing with him on everything (and without editing):

Q and A

1) Was the Syrian regime, in hindsight, lying when it claimed right after the launch of the uprising, that there were armed groups operating in Syria? And were the armed groups lying when they later claimed that they were strictly peaceful but turned violent by virtue of the violence of the regime?
As far as I can tell, the Syrian uprising was overwhelmingly peaceful for most of 2011. There was of course a fair bit of stone-throwing and rioting, and there seems to have been some organized attacks on government forces in early 2011 (like the violence in Baniyas in April, revenge attacks on government forces in Deraa, some trouble north of on the Lebanese border, and so on). But these things were very rare until the summer, and they generally did not seem to be connected to the main political movement, which was one of demonstrations and peaceful activism. Recall that one of the most popular slogans of the revolution was ”silmiye, silmiye” (”peaceful, peaceful”). That was the mainstream opposition discourse, which people believed in, demonstrated for, and were killed for.
So, bottom line: The government was telling the truth in some instances, but it was also clearly lying when it tried to portray the reolution as such as the work of ”armed gangs”. For every armed attack on the government in those early days, Assad’s forces had gunned down about a hundred peaceful demonstrators, yet the government media only mentioned the armed attack. Later of course, things began to change.
As for the armed movement in Syria, there was certainly some small groups who had their sights set on armed action from the start, like the jihadis. I’m sure they did their best to fan the flames, but they were pretty insignificant at first.
Most of the opposition kept calling for peaceful protest well into late summer 2011. The vast mass of the armed insurgency still today seems to consist of ordinary Syrian civilians who joined it when the fighting came to their towns, former demonstrators who picked up guns, pro-Assad soldiers who deserted, people who had relatives killed, etc. So I really think the violence of the regime was the number one driver for Syria’s civil war, along with the (related) surge in sectarianism.

2) was there a Western and Arab media cover up when the total control by Muslim Brotherhood of Syrian NActional Council conclealed?

First of all, I don’t think there was ever total control over the SNC by the Muslim Brotherhood, it was much more complex than that. They were by far the most powerful group in the SNC, but often they seemed to be almost as frustrated by it as everyone else. People have underestimated the fractiousness of the Syrian exile opposition. Many smaller groups (Islamists and non-Islamists) tried to hitch a ride on the Ikhwani bandwagon for reasons of their own. This strengthened the Ikhwan, but it didn’t mean that they could control all these groups.
Their power was basically because of clever alliance-building and picking strategic offices, but they had to work hard to keep those alliances alive, and there were setbacks from time to time. With the formation of the National Coalition, I think the Ikhwan have been cut down to size. They’re reasonably well represented, but nowhere near as powerful as in the SNC. We’ll see how they’re going deal with that.
On Western/Arab media: Not so much a cover-up as a case of shallow reporting (although I realize there’s only so much you can do with a 500-word article). The prominent role of the Brotherhood in the exile community was either not discussed at all, or presented in very alarmist tones, in the ”stealth jihadis control the entire opposition” kind of writing. And with all due respect, I think your blog has been engaging in some of that.

3) was the notion of an uprising led by Suhayr Atasi and other liberals and feminists a mere propaganda ploy?

This is a bit of a straw man argument, isn’t it? I agree that liberal dissidents (or more precisely: Anglophone exile dissidents, who were also often liberals) got a disproportional amount of attention at first – again mostly due to lazy reporting. But no one who was seriously interested in the conflict could have imagined that the opposition was all pro-Western liberals and feminists. If you look at the socioeconomics of the revolutionary movement, it was basically a populist grassroots resistance which emerged from the impoverished Sunni Arab countryside and poor neighborhoods in the cities. Not really a bastion of secular liberalism.
Then, of course, you had intellectuals, student groups, media activists, and old-school dissidents who helped set off the initial demonstrations, mobilize the media, shape the early revolutionary discourse and so on. Many of them were secular, although I think more often of the far-left variety than liberals. Soheir el-Atassi certainly played an important role there. Their role has diminshed since then, and they’re unfortunately quite marginal now that the conflict is in the hands of armed rebels.

4) Is there in your mind any unit or battallion fighting in Syria that is really secular and or liberal?

Well, on the government side there seems to be plenty of them. The Kurdish YPG militias, loyal to the PKK, are also quite serious about secularism. In the Arab armed opposition movement, I’m not aware of any really secular group, but of course there could be some small factions. As far as I can tell, virtually all of the major armed groups (Liwa el-Tawhid, Kataeb el-Farouq, Ahrar el-Sham, Jabhat al-Nosra, Suqour el-Sham, Ansar el-Islam, etc) have by now declared that they want an Islamic state.
Then again, it depends on how you define secular and liberal. Syrian society hasn’t been very secular or liberal in general, despite the Baath Party’s enforced state secularism. Outside of the urban middle/upper class and intellectual strata, people of all faiths have tended to be deeply religious and conservative, even in times of peace and (not so much under the Assads) prosperity. That’s going to be reflected in the opposition as well, particularly since the war has now gone sectarian.
On a side note, I often think it’s helpful to try to distinguish between religiousness (in terms of personal faith) and sectarianism (as loyalty to a religiously defined community). Some groups who publicly and perhaps even privately identify with secular politics, can still act in extremely sectarian ways. Recall how Hafez el-Assad systematically played the sectarian card and used the Alawite community to bolster his regime, and yet he never showed even a hint of sincere religiousness.

5) When we speak of secular among the armed groups in Syria, is that like we we use secular to denote non-Islamists in Afghanistan like Abdul-Rashid Dustum?

Yes, kind of. At least I get the impression that that’s how the word is being used in the media: as a catch-all term for ”non-Islamist”.
You could also compare with Fatah and Hamas during the latest Palestinan uprising. Certainly they differ ideologically as political movements, but during the intifada, the lines were quite blurred since everybody employed religious rhetoric. For example, who was more secular, the Aqsa Martyrs suicide bomber or the Ezzeddin el-Qassam suicide bomber?
Bottom line, I’m not sure it’s a very useful term in this context.

6) Do you think that the unconditional support granted by Western governments and media helped in pushing the Syrian conflict into a civil war? 

There was no unconditional support for the uprising (except verbally), and there was generally no desire to see a Syrian civil war in the West. To the contrary, there was great fear that Syria would implode the way it has now done. I don’t even think the Gulf monarchies had the stomach for that at first. It was only after the slide to civil war had become a near certainty that most Western and Gulf governments went all-in on the rebel side, after having been cautiously supportive at first, and meddling half-heartedly with the exile opposition. Remember that it took the US-EU-GCC bloc until July-August 2011 to even demand the resignation of Bashar el-Assad.
In sum, I think Western governments helped fan the flames to some extent, but not as part of a systematic strategy – rather a lack of strategy. When they figured out what was going on, it was too late to change course anyway. Since then, it’s changed completely, and now several Western nations are intimately involved with the uprising.
In my view, the international involvement has been disastrous for Syria – and I’m referring both to the US/EU/GCC side and the Russian/Iranian/Chinese support for Assad. Both blocs seem perfectly content with seeing Syria torn to shreds, as long as they can make sure that their opponents don’t get what they want. It’s now going to be very difficult to disentangle the Syrian civil war from other intractable regional and international conflicts.
7) If Syria is in a state of civil war, does that mean that the armed groups—just like the regime—have failed to win the support of the majority of people?

Nobody’s conducted a poll, but yeah, I imagine so. I have no idea what the percentages are, but clearly, both sides have strong support from within different communities, while many others are just sick of it all. Imagining the Syrian people (or any people) as a single entity which can be neatly divided into X% For and Y% Against isn’t helping us to understand what is going on. There are socioeconomic factors, regional issues, sectarian and ethnic divides, lots of political baggage, etc, and all of these things play out differently in their own local contexts.
Certain rebel groups draw support from certain segments of the population. For example, Liwa el-Tawhid is strong around Aleppo, and presumably has some sort of a popular/resource base there, while Liwa el-Haqq is strong in the old town of Homs, Liwa el-Islam has struck roots in the eastern Ghouta, and so on.

The same is basically true for Bashar el-Assad’s government. Behind the Baath Party, there’s always been kind of an alliance of different interests – powerful families, military networks, clans and tribes, wealthy financiers, etc. If (or when) the government side starts fragmenting, I think the regime’s umbrella structure will become more clearly visible.
8) Jabhat An-Nusrah: how many variants of it exist among the armed groups? 

Only one Jabhat el-Nosra, if by that you refer to a large al-Qaida franchise. You also have some radical groups of Syrians and foreign fighters who seem to share the same basic salafi-jihadi ideology (like Kataeb el-Muhajerin or the Mujahedin Shoura Council), but they’re tiny by comparison.
Then you have other Islamist groups who are also ultraconservative and Sunni-sectarian, but more connected to mainstream salafi thinking in the Gulf etc, and not specifically to the salafi-jihadi criminal undergound. They don’t seem to be linked to al-Qaida in the same fashion either, and try to distance themselves a little from the most radical jihadi stuff. These factions include Ahrar el-Sham and the other factions within the Syrian Islamic Front."